Our dilemma today: Can Islam only be modernised by force?

THE return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan is something that keen watchers of Pakistani politics have been speculating about for ages, and it would appear that it has finally come true.

By Farish A Noor

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Published: Sat 20 Oct 2007, 8:33 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:32 AM

Now of course the world awaits to see what will happen when both Benazir and Pervez Musharraf try to work together to form a working instrumental coalition to resolve the pressing issues that face the country and shall continue to do so for the months and years to come.

Among the most pressing issues that need to be faced is that of the reform of Islamic education, not only in the countries madrassas, but also in the institutions of higher learning that dot the landscape of the country. Pakistan is not alone in having an International Islamic University, for there are other countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia that have likewise moved to the field of higher religious education for Muslims. What is apparent however is that even after several decades of development the struggle to create a form of higher Islamic instruction that is both Islamic in its essentials and modern in its spirit is sorely lacking.

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the debate over Islamisation of knowledge, a grand design that has sadly borne little in terms of substantial fruit to date. Looking at the output of those who have been part of this project so far, one is left sceptical about whether such a thing is possible at all. Among the more dubious outpourings of this transnational effort has been the attempts to Islamise the English language and even mathematics; and we have even heard of a case of a book on Islamic Zoology, with the thesis that any animal mentioned in the Quran is an Islamic one and those that are not are presumably un-Islamic. How much money has been spent on such projects, and what pitiable results have we seen!

Furthermore, it has to be said that the reform of Islamic education was never and will never be an easy task. Even at the closing stages of the 19th century when Sir Syed Ahmad Khan founded the Aligarh Anglo-Muhammadan College of India, there were already harsh criticisms of his efforts to modernise Islamic studies. His detractors accused him of trying to dilute and corrupt Islam with non-Islamic subjects like philosophy, logic and material sciences, oblivious of the long tradition of scientific research carried out by generations of Muslim scientists from the 13th century apparently.

By the end of the colonial era many predominantly Muslim states also embarked on similar attempts at modernisation and reform, but with mixed results. Today practically every Muslim country has at least one Islamic university or college, and numerous Islamic research centres. But ironically not a single one of these institutions have been ranked highly in any of the global surveys carried out, and many of them remain obscure.

The sole exceptions to the rule seem to be the National Islamic Universities (UINs) of Indonesia, such as UIN Sharif Hidayatullah and UIN Sunan Kalijaga in Indonesia. Today these are the only institutions I have visited where Muslim students are taught a scientific method of analysis so that they do not simply study Islam, but rather research it as an object of analysis as well. This is what sets them apart from the other Islamic universities in the world, but it also has to be remembered that the UINs of Indonesia were developed largely during the time of the dictator Suharto, who was also opposed to the radicalisation of Muslim students and fearful of the impact and influence of foreign (re: Arab) Islam in Indonesia.

Ironically it was during the Suharto years that the military-backed elite of the country managed to reform and modernise the Islamic educational system of the country, for the sake of development and turning Indonesia into a modern manufacturing-based economy instead. This then leaves us with the dilemma: Can Islamic education only be reformed and modernised by force, at the point of a bayonet? One certainly hopes that that is not the case, for it spells the end of any democratic aspirations on the part of Muslims the world over. However whatever the drawbacks and faults may be, it remains a fact that Indonesia's Islamic Universities seem to be at the cutting edge of Islamic studies today.

For these reasons many observers are now keen to see how the Musharraf-Benazir team will cope with the demands of the Islamic educational reform challenge, and where this will take the madrassas and Islamic colleges of Pakistan. Though the sceptics may be reluctant to place their bets on the success of this endeavour, many others will be praying hard not only for the democratisation of Pakistan, but equally for the success of its educational reform programme.

Dr Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site www.othermalaysia.org.

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